Bowel Cancer

Bowel cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in Australia. Bowel cancer affects as many as 1 in 20 Australians. Bowel cancer often does not cause symptoms until it is advanced and at this stage it is difficult to cure. If bowel cancer is detected early the chance of long-term survival or ‘cure’ is much greater. Most bowel cancers are thought to develop from polyps. Detecting and removing polyps before they become cancerous can reduce the risk of death from bowel cancer by 63%.

The greatest risk factor for bowel cancer is age. Smoking and excess alcohol intake are also important risk factors. Bowel cancer becomes increasingly common in both men and women after the age of 50. If members of your family have been affected by bowel cancer then you may be at an increased risk of developing bowel cancer yourself. The size of this risk will depend on the number of family members affected, how closely they are related to you and how old they were when they develop bowel cancer. However, the majority of people who get bowel cancer (up to 80%) do not have a close family member with the disease.

It is thought that the risk of bowel cancer can be reduced by eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly. A low dose of aspirin taken regularly over the long term may reduce the risk of bowel cancer but aspirin does increase the risk of bleeding, particularly from the gastrointestinal tract, and a decision to use aspirin to prevent bowel cancer should be discussed with your doctor.

Screening for bowel cancer is recommended for people with no identifiable risk factors for bowel cancer from the age of 50. Those with an increased risk may need to commence screening earlier. Screening for bowel cancer with colonoscopy or faecal occult blood testing can reduce the risk of dying from bowel cancer. Colonoscopy allows the detection and removal of pre-cancerous colonic polyps. Removing polyps (polypectomy) during colonoscopy can prevent cancer developing.

The Australian Federal Government runs the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program ( In 2018 all Australians aged between 50 and 74 will be offered screening with Fecal Occult blood testing every 2 years. Currently only Australians aged 50, 55, 60 and 65 who hold a Medicare or DVA card are being enrolled. Your doctor may recommend screening at other times independent of the screening program. Patients with a positive screening test should proceed to colonoscopy.

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